26 April 2012

Marl caves eat your heart out

Before I came to the UK I had never heard of caving. Or of mine exploration by means of leisure. I had accidentally done some, though; years ago, I had visited what is colloquially known as the Valkenburg Marl Caves a few times. They are technically chalk mines; the rock, which isn’t marl, was mined underground for building purposes. Not quite sure why they didn’t use open cast mining, but I’m happy they didn’t; the resulting labyrinth is absolutely mesmerising.

I have now found their English older brother: the Box Freestone mine! While in Norfolk I got a phone call; whether I was interested to bugger off to Bath shortly after having returned from fieldwork, and visit some limestone caves there. The entire Cornish caving club would go, which would mean getting up ridiculously early, going underground, driving all the way back, and being home late. If they unanimously considered it worth it, it had to be good. So I said yes.

When we approached Bath it became quite clear what that mine was all about; most buildings are constructed with some featureless, though decorative, pale yellowish material. Bath stone! And we were on our way to its provenance.

Bath stone. Picture: Dave Evans. Source: Creative Commons.

And it was worth it indeed! For those who have been in their continental counterpart: picture these, but with slightly more brittle rock, so more fractured ceilings, and more water dripping down, and with a plethora of mining equipment still in place. Many tunnels still had rails, and soot on the ceiling from the steam trains that had laboured there, back in the days. Furthermore you could hardly walk a meter without bumping into another crane! We also found barrels, carts, and endless supplies of smaller implements. The enormous saws that had been used to cut out the rock were very rusty now, but they still worked. And we found so many files used for keeping the saws sharp one of the Cornish remarked he could easily start his own underground second-hand file shop there. Maybe an idea for Dragon’s Den?

At the entrance

This is what is generally looks like! Notice the soot trail on the ceiling.

We had a local guide; we had to, as it is a veritable labyrinth, and the chance of coming out alive without him would probably be slim. But we must have been kind enough to him, for he brought us safely out again. And not only that; he lead us past several strange highlights.

One of these was what they call “the robots”; it’s a room where many bricks were found, and generations of cavers have built crude statues with these. Quite unusual!

The "robots"

Another highlight was a quite bleak one. Some may think an abandoned mine is quite bleak in its own right, but even they would have to admit there are gradations; somewhere in the mine there was an entrance to a tunnel dug by the military. You can immediately tell the difference; it’s bigger, more regular, and quite imposing. This tunnel leads to a red door. It’s locked; what’s behind it is still military terrain, and not accessible. A whole underground city is hidden there. It was built during the cold war; it was supposed to be able to accommodate the entire government and whatnot. Makes the mind reel!

The military tunnel, with me for scale

The red door to the military underground city

And what I thought was THE highlight: “the Cathedral”. It’s a chamber in the mine of truly cathedral dimensions, with an open shaft in the ceiling, which lets in some heavenly light. You really don’t know what you see when you walk in there. The photographers went bonkers there. How do you get the whole cathedral on your picture? We were also ogling the shaft - to come down there! Imagine the views.

A not very succesful combined photo of the cathedral, but even like this you can see how majestic it is!

From a side tunnel I got the whole height in my view

I tried a new photography trick down there as well. I quite often take pictures with 15 sec exposure time. That is hard with 20 people with lights on their helmets around! So now I went manual-ish; I just opened the shutter, and as soon as I figured enough light would have entered the lens I just put my hand over it for the remainder of the 15 seconds. I got quite some pictures with overexposure (after all) or phantoms walking through it, but sometimes it worked out quite well! One keeps learning.

Another tunnel

Graffiti from when people still had beautiful handwriting

Hugh tries one of the saws

What could turn out as "Nick's second-hand file shop"; he can sell bottles too!

Some railway cart that was just left

One of the very many cranes; this specimen was in better than average nick

25 April 2012

Beers of Europe

Fieldwork preparation involves a lot of staring at the map. And sometimes you find what you were not looking for.

I was having a good look at Google Maps, looking for clues on who would own what stretch of land. And one of the map views I strutinised is below. Do you see what I see?

Tasha had seen it too. She mailed me we should really visit that place. And we did.

As the map already indicates, Setchey is hardly a bustling metropole. It is hardly more than a farm, a garage and the biggest beer shop in the UK. But that shop is truly overwhelming. Beer as far as the eye can see! More beer than one can imagine! And then another aisle! It was hard to not spend half a monthly wage. They had all these beers I had been enjoying in the Netherlands, which is not Belgium's neighbour without consequence. And they even had the unusual beer I had only found in Maine! I bought four of these.

In UK supermarkets you can generally buy things like Leffe and Hoegaarden. What you never find, and what I like, are Gueuzes. So I stocked up on these. They even had a wide range of "old Gueuzes"; I had never seen the likes of these before, but it sounded like it would be a Gueuze but then with stronger taste! How could that not appeal to me.

I also bought some beers almost at random. No way you can make an informed decision in a place that offers so overwhelmingly much choice. But I like bockbeer so I bought an unknown one, and I thought due to its name "Malheur" would make a good present for Hugh. I figured he might like a Delirium Tremens (he's that kind of guy!) though it ended up being a Delirium Nocturnum, and I bought a Duchesse de Bourgogne at random. She turned out to be quite a treat...

I have now been back for five days, and I can provide a preliminary report: Malheur is quite pleasant, Gueuzes do what they are supposed to do, Petrus aged pale is of course still very vinegary, Duchesse de Bourgogne accidentally is a gueuze too (it only takes the aging in oak barrels, doesn't it?) and quite an excellent one, and indeed, Oude Gueuze is Gueuze squared! I like! We are likely to do fieldwork near Peterborough as well, which is quite close to our Norfolk sites; I think I could imagine a little trip back to Setchey...

24 April 2012

Norfolk fieldwork - the real thing

The men arrived two minutes late. And they spent the evening making camping jokes. We were on fieldwork in Norfolk; Tasha and I had prepared the way, braving the elements on the local camping, and now the men came in to be there when the actual work would be done. I drove them to the massive cottage we had rented for the week…

Quite a change from the recce: our accomodation "Rustic Lodge"

The inside: plenty of space for office work and a double micropal lab!

Tasha and I had sent the men a powerpoint presentation with the update, with the message to print and bring it. Rooting through that kept them busy for a while. And then it was time for a vegetable chili.

We had made a plan. We would go back to where Tasha and I had found the Nar Valley Clay, so they could get a feel for it too. So we went back, this time with both coring kits. Tasha and I had managed to get 3 metres down; now, with more people and more kit, we could push further. And we did. We cored more clay, and more, and more, and then it got hard. We hit something. Bedrock? A piece of flint? No; it turned out to be wood, in peat. The freshwater beds! Exactly what we needed! This was turning out well. We couldn’t penetrate into that woody peat, but we knew it was there. Good! And we tried again a few tens of metres away; we still couldn’t penetrate it there, but it was much closer to surface. We tried yet again somewhere hundreds of metres away, but that only yielded sand. And in the evening I could put my microscope into use. Lots and lots of forams! I won’t have to be bored the coming years. Not that that was my concern…

The men pulling their weight

Forams! In abundance!

The next three days we spent coring near an abandoned railroad, in a currently unused part of a quarry, and in some old pit that had once probably been used once for extracting sand. Now the proper kit came out… Tasha and Antony conjured the percussive drill out of their big SUV. It’s basically a jackhammer with an adapter so it fits on a coring rod instead of a big industrial size chisel. Pretty cool stuff! A veritable testosterone plaything. Makes your moustache curl. It gets big rods quite deep into the ground. And it has a thingamabob with big muscle-powered levers to get the whole thing back out of the ground again. And generally these levers do their work, but sometimes the ground sucks so much (literally!) that you have to put you full weight on them, two people on each side, and then rock up and down. Extremely tiresome, though occasionally hilarious! But luckily, that’s only a small part of the time.

Starting the engine of the percussive corer; it didn't always look that spectacular and polluting!

The drilling team in action

Levering the barrel out of the borehole

This is how I like doing that: this way one does not need much height! Pic by Roland

The quarry was a nice experience; I had phoned and mailed the company in advance to ask permission. They were keen to give it! Nice people. Monday morning 9AM we showed up in their office, and they were quite happy to talk with us, drive us around the farthest reaches of the quarry, talk us through the entire geography, and give us a key, copies of bore logs from inside the quarry, and a business card for in case some uninformed quarry workers questioned our presence. Excellent!

The quarry workers had saved an unfortunately positioned tree... for now

Processing a core in the quarry.

The only disadvantage was that the bits of the quarry they were done with were then used as a landfill. And we were working downwind from it. It also attracted thousands of sea gulls, of which we were afraid they would defecate on our heads. But they luckily didn’t.

We had a routine going; Antony worked the drill, as you need to be tall, strong and healthy to do that, and he's the only one of us who qualifies. Tasha would help him, as they are quite a team. Roland and I came in for ferrying stuff around, extracting the rod from the borehole, and logging and packing the sediments. We became a well-oiled war machine.

One has to sometimes be careful with where one sticks an auger down

And after work we sometimes were just tired and hungry, as we occasionally cored on until 7pm. Then we would just go home, cook, have a shower, check some samples and go to bed. Sometimes we were out of the field earlier; twice we made it to the pub for a snifter! It was a good fieldwork on all days, but these were extra nice. And the level of cooking was impressive. And the company evidently impeccable. On two days we were with five; Roland had flagged the student down that would later do the pollen analysis on our sediments. This student, Rachel, turned out to be a splendid addition to the already quite marvellous team. Norfolk might not be the most spectacular place one could imagine, but all together it worked quite well for us. The sediments, the foraminifera, and the people made the landscape irrelevant.

Looking out over the quarry. Pic by Roland

Later in the week the weather deteriorated, but the sediments and their microfossils remained delightful. And there's always more one wants to do, but we had to leave. Time was up. The Durham tough guys would stay all the way until the end; the Plymouth lot left half a day earlier because of family reasons. But altogether we collected an impressive number of cores, and lots of samples in bags. We’ll have lots of work. And Norfolk is only 7 hours driving away; we can always come back if, after analysis of what we brought back, we think we've missed the icing on the cake!

Pic by Roland

21 April 2012

Norfolk fieldwork: the recce

The quest for evidence of past high sea level continued. For the current sea level project, we needed sediments from past interglacials that had microfossils in them that would contain useful information on sea level at the time. Not necessarily easy! The sediments in question might be quite overlain by all sorts of more recent sediments, some of the not-so-easy to core through type, and the time passed since their deposition might allow for lots of dissolution of the microfossils. So so far we had been largely unsuccessful. The foram displayed on this blog was pretty close to all we had found... but there was hope: Norfolk! Somewhere around Easter we would go there, hunting for the Nar Valley Clay, deposited three interglacials ago, during a period of quite high water. It was supposed to overlie freshwater beds. We wanted to sample that contact! And more.

But before you can get down into the sedimentology of things you have to do lots of preparational work. You have to browse through literature to see what others have already found out about these sediments. And you have to go and get permission to stick your coring equipment into people’s land. The first had kept me busy for a while, especially since I found out the British GeologicalSurvey has an online data repository of most of the boreholes they have sunk. And that’s many. The latter had already started; I had found the contact information of three big players in the region: two quarries and one official body that owned some woodland. Access permission was flowing in! But if it’s just an ordinary field you want to core in it’s impossible to find out through a map who owns it, and therefore who to ask permission from. That has to be done on location. And Tasha and I were sent ahead to do that. Roland and Antony would come in when the work would get physically demanding.

So on a nice Tuesday I drove to a campsite not far from King’s Lynn, and pitched my tent. A few hours later Tasha arrived. The evening was for a lovely pub dinner, and the day after the work would start for real.
My modest tent and huge car

We spent two days driving around, ringing door bells, phoning numbers found on gates, visiting the county council and the estate office, sometimes running from pillar to post. We encountered friendly dogs, amiable farmers, protective farmers, confused turkeys, more confused receptionists of posh insurance companies (the company owned relevant farmland!) and much more. We found out that since the bulk of the literature on the region was written, a major grid of high pressure gas lines had been installed in the area. That took some potential coring sites of our list! But we had plenty left.

 Frugal fieldwork breakfast

It was a bit of a faff to do such a recce from a campsite; camping always involves a lot of lugging stuff around and getting everything dirty, but nowadays, fieldwork preparation involves a lot of online activity. And the campsite had a weak signal, and a tent is not a very good place to do computer work. Furthermore, you can’t reasonably check your sediments for microfossils in your tent, if only for the lack of socket for the light source. We probably took frugality a bit too far; the fieldwork budget on this project is limited, but next time I think we should find ourselves a building to reside in. A building with good wifi. That will also save us from having breakfast in the cold and the rain! That’s the thing to do in one’s holidays…

 One of our more scenic sites

 Nar Valley Clay!

After having been quite executive with the permission-asking business, we had some time at the end of the second day to actually sink an auger down in one of our sites. Lo and behold, we found Nar Valley Clay! This was going in the right direction. So on the third day, after taking down our tents and trying a few more locations, we were not too disappointed to be stopped by impenetrable flint layers.

 Camping ICT

We picked up the men from the railway station in good spirits. We had sent them an extensive file with an update of our findings, and that kept them busy for a while. As soon as they had read up on all of this we could go and get started for real. And with a bit of luck, this fieldwork would kick the whole project into a higher gear!

17 April 2012

Cultural day: the afternoon

There's only so much time you can spend in a castle ruin. Even me. So when Hugh and I had combined radiant weather and sniffly coughing people to visit Restormel Castle, we were out so early we could squeeze in another sight. Earlier in spring he had had his eye on the Lost Gardens of Heligan; some botanical project of some absurdly rich landowner, which had gotten overgrown, and was quite recently rediscovered. The gardens had been restored to their old glory, and some modern bells and whistles to lure in more tourists had been added. We went to have a look.

It is quite an extensive place! They have what they call a jungle, with all sorts of exotic plants thrown together, but also classic English show gardens, and vegetable gardens, and what not. It was quite nice! Within minutes Hugh got emotional: they had quite some Southern Hemisphere vegetation, which he hadn't seen for many months. I was still feeling a bit restless; I don't want to be under the weather all the time! I want to run off-road races, and explore extensive mines! But as I said in the previous bog post already; one can't have it all, and if one doensn't have one's health one should be glad to have such gardens and other features nearby...

A pond in the 'jungle'

The stem of giant rhubarb

There are many pheasants in these gardens, and they aren't shy

Manucured part of the gardens, with a view onto the sea

This is imaginatively called 'the ravine'; far from being ravinesque, but quite pretty anyway!

13 April 2012

Cultural day: the morning

The blog mentions culture; that's generally a bad sign! It should mention mud and sweat. When there's time for culture that often means my health does not allow sweaty muddy fun. And indeed; that long last day in Ireland, starting with my fastest run in quite a while just after 7AM, all the way to the students' disco until 2:15AM, and then the harsh trip back, did me in. I was feeling so bad when I got home I stayed in for a day. And the rest of the week I wasn't at all at my best. So the Easter weekend should have provided opportunity for tough hiking, but that had to be replaced with something more sedate. Culture!

The last time I was too ill to get muddy Hugh and I had had a look at interesting sights in the neighbourhood, but found that the more spectacular ones were closed; this was our chance to see one or two of these after all! So I picked the most spectacular nearby medieval castle. And to Restormel Castel we went.

It's a 13th Century castle on a hill, and there's quite a lot left of it. To my surprise it had been more of a show castle than a defensive structure; that somehow doesn't fit with the view I have of that time! I should revise. The castle, though, left little room for doubt; its windows were bigger than mine.

It was a beautiful, sunny day; a good day for visiting such a decorative structure that overlooked the Fowey valley. And I would rather have hiked Dartmoor, but one can't have it all, and if one can have this it isn't too bad!

Restormel Castle as its presents itself to the approaching visitor

The castle from the inside

Spring flowers growing from the walls

The dreamy view over the valley

The somewhat silly sight of intimidating, more-than-a-metre-thick, crenellated walls, with enormous windows...

07 April 2012

Not a nerd

I was in Ireland. I had limited access to slow and relatively expensive internet! That must have been the reason I completely missed the 1024rd blog post. And, especially given the mitigating circumstances, I think I can still claim some level of nerdiness, but I'm not up there with the die-hards!

Ireland: the visual and social aspects

The ireland fieldwork is not just travel, work and then travel again! A good fieldwork has a social aspect. And this one sure did. And it of course also had unexpected moments of beauty. I figured I may well combine these two to one happy blog post.

There are many, many millipedes in Lisdoonvarna! This one resided in my bath. I evicted it; I figured we would both be happier if he went outside.

We were with 14 members of staff. That's quite a lot! And most are spiffing people with whom it is a pleasure to hang out for a week. Some of them I don't get to see very often in daily life. And with some, things were comfortingly normal; I had brought my running kit, and just like in Plymouth I went running with Pete every second day. Not before lunch, evidently; we had to reschedule to before breakfast. Not my best running time, but better than nothing. Pete had already scouted out a good 4 mile route from the hotel before we even got there!

One day I woke up, and figured it would probably be almost time to get up to go for our run. I looked at my watch: 7:09! I was supposed to meet Pete in the lobby at 7:05... I jumped into my running kit, dashed down the stairs, handed my room key to the receptionist who said "ah, there you are! He just left a minute or so ago..." So I dashed out of the door. I ran like mad. I ran out of town, and where the views became a bit broader I discerned a yellow dot on the road ahead of me. Pete! I shouted, but he couldn't hear me. 

Breathing heavily I ploughed on. I knew there was a sharp turn coming up; maybe there he would be able to hear me. But he didn't. I ran on and on. Then I saw him run a little loop. A loop! He must have seen me, and started looping to give me the opportunity to catch up. No; he had just dropped his hat...

In the middle of our run there was a long, gradual slope down. I know I can't possibly outrun Pete on a slope up, and on flat terrain I have little chance either, but Pete's not a very fast descender. So I legged it. And yelled again. And this time he heard me!

We ran together the rest of the way. That must have been my fastest run in a while! I know I manage to dig deepest when I have a bloke to run after. I should try to pretend it's a social run next time there's a race; maybe I can keep up with him much longer then!

Early spring flower

Cartographers on an eroded limestone shore

If I go for a beer with colleagues it tend to be the same bunch every time, but now I had my chance to broaden my horizon. On the first night we arrived so late I decided not to drink, and on the second night I had emergency phone duty, so I had to stay sober to be able to deal with possible emergencies. But the third night nothing stopped me. And there was a nice local pub around the corner, with locally brewed beer! And some of the people I had never enjoyed a pint with were there. Fieldwork, good for colleague bonding!

Defiant calf on the spit

As the sea level project is one of the shorter projects, Marta and I would even have time for a pre-dinner beer in the sun on the staff-lead days. Luxury!

Beautiful erosional feature

Colourful yet deceased beach dwellers

Of course there wasn't only staff; there were also more than a hundred students. And it is all about them. I knew my student-lead groups a bit, but beside that they were all complete strangers to me. But they were a good bunch! During the walks on the first days, Ian lead the front while I brought up the back, so they were my company. And it's nice to get to know them! I might see some of them again. During Roland's sea level module, for instance. And one even wanted to become a member of the caving club!

The coach driver trying to save his wing mirror, after another coach driver has decided the road actually is wide enough for both...

Tenacious denizens of the intertidal realm

On the last day we went to the pub with a bunch of staff. We expected the students to make an appearance any time as well, but none showed up. Were they still working? Had they gone to bed? Or would they be partying in the hotel bar? Chris suspected the last. He figured there would be a last night disco. And he didn't want to miss it! So at ~10.30 he dragged us all out of the pub and back to the hotel. And indeed, the students were in the hotel bar, and there was a DJ, but the dance floor was empty. 

We just came in for a pint, but Chris started to shake his stuff, and the students seemed to also have reached the point where they dare show off their moves. So soon the dance floor was festooned with a handful of pioneering characters. And it was contagious! Quite soon the whole floor was heaving with sweaty people, staff and students alike. Either Travolta'ing away, or sentimentally belting along with the likes of Robbie Williams. It was good! And it isn't good for the voice, and going to bed after 2AM isn't good for one's general health, but I think it helps make us a school, and not two clumps of individuals.

Cows taking it easy on the beach

I don't know if I'll be going again next year, but I must say, I actually hope I will! It was very useful and a lot of fun. Two of the 14 will surely not come back next year as they will be moving away, so the school might very well be quite happy to accommodate me...